Feeling Strangely Busy

Fickle major labels, lethargic production schedules, desensitized index fingers--nothing can slow John Munson down

John Munson's left index finger looks like a bandaged corn dog. "I could make a really rude joke," he notes nonchalantly. "In the course of putting a seat into my Volkswagen van a couple weeks ago, I sliced the digital nerve and lost all the feeling in the tip. I had hand surgery last Thursday. In a couple months, I'll find out if I can play bass any more, basically."

There's a mild note of anxiousness in his voice, but on the whole Munson, best known for his work in Trip Shakespeare and Semisonic, seems regally unruffled about his appendage's uncertain fate, especially given the fact that he's currently wearing more hats than Bartholomew Cubbins. Then again, Munson is on relaxing turf--the couch in his south Minneapolis storefront studio, with the lights down low and Brian Eno's On Land bubbling out of the speakers. Plus, he's used to waiting. Semisonic, the chart-topping trio Munson plays in with guitarist Dan Wilson and drummer Jacob Slichter, has been in limbo ever since losing its contract after 2001's All About Chemistry failed to meet what some (read: any sane person) might consider unreasonably high label expectations.

"When MCA called and said, 'That's it; we're gonna let you guys go,'" he recalls, "our manager was like, 'Let's really keep this under wraps, because it'll make it easier to go after a different contract.' I felt like things were just hanging." The band's situation was complicated by the fact that leader Dan Wilson's solo album--due early next year--was proceeding at a pace that would make glaciers impatient. "I don't think anyone, including Dan, had any idea that it would take this long for it to come out," says Munson. "He's been working on it and jumping through record-company-hell hoops since 2002. He hooked up with Rick Rubin, who's a really slow, methodical producer. Then Rubin lost his deal with American, so Dan had to wait that out and blah, blah, blah. It just takes forever. That's major labels, I swear to fucking God. You'd think they'd be much lighter on their feet."

Goodness knows, Munson is. When Semisonic stalled, the bassist's world fell, uh, together. "I was looking around in my life and I thought, I never did get that B.A. I've been one class short--one class--for 15 years. I called the head of the Asian Languages and Literature Department at the U. He said, 'Well, it's not that simple. You'll have to take a couple other classes if you want a degree from our department. So I met this guy, took a couple classes with him, worked hard, and we really hit it off. He put my name forward to the Taiwan Bureau of Cultural Affairs. 'These people are into some really crazy shit,' he told me. 'You ought to send 'em your stuff.'"

Munson took the advice and sent the bureau some musical settings of poems from the Shi Jing, an ancient Chinese epic also known as The Book of Songs or The Book of Odes. The poems were subjected to what Munson calls "a radical translation located somewhere between the Shang Dynasty, Shanghai in the 1920s, and Philadelphia circa 1973." Nonetheless, the work impressed the Taiwanese taste arbiters enough to land Munson a November-long residency at Taipei Artist's Village, during which he'll work on some open-ended musical collaborations and help document the country's music. While he is new to Taiwan, Munson's first full-immersion Chinese cultural experience came in 2004, after he and wife Penny decided to adopt. A trip to the mainland followed.

"When you adopt from China," he says, "you have to take a vow to raise your kid with an awareness of his or her cultural roots. How does Joe Blow from western Wisconsin--or myself--do this? Where do you start? While I was there, I saw these gu zheng--21-string Chinese harps--just beautiful instruments. I decided to buy one and bring it home, thinking it'd be something for my daughter Jing Jing and me to get together over. I brought it back, started looking for a teacher, and just lucked into finding this gu zheng master, probably the only one--and certainly the best--within a 500-mile radius."

Munson's experiences with Li Jia Xiang, who gigged regularly at Beijing's renowned Zhong Nan Hai Theater before relocating to suburban Minneapolis a few decades ago, prompted the bassist to put his money where his gu zheng was and found the Culture Bridge label. Unlike the majors, Culture Bridge works fast, as demonstrated by the newly released Music of China: Volume One, a collection of traditional folk songs featuring Xiang, as well as Minnesota-based virtuosos Gao Hong on pi pa, and Zhang Ying on di zi, xun, and several other instruments. In the liner notes, Munson explains that the goal of Culture Bridge is partly to "provide families with a resource to explore adopted children's birth cultures through music."

As it turns out, the album transcends that noble original intent by a mile. Sure, it'll make an awesome bonding tool for children and parents, especially after Munson puts the song-accompanying stories up on the label's website. But the disc also provides a magnificent intro to the inexhaustible world of Chinese music. The digipack's high design standards--unusual for U.S.-released world music--don't hurt either. Munson plans to continue the look with similarly oriented collections of Russian and Colombian songs in 2006 and 2007, respectively.

Released in September, the New Standards' self-titled debut is pretty sharp-looking, too, largely thanks to suave cover boys Munson, Chan Poling, and vibraphonist Steve Roehm. As with Music of China, the Dan Wilson-produced album features traditional songs--ranging from the venerable and mysterious Johnny Mathis hit "Nature Boy" to the more recent likes of Mott the Hoople's "All the Young Dudes" and the Replacements' "I Will Dare."

"If anybody had told me in, like, '82, that I'd be in a band with Chan Poling," Munson confesses, "I'd have peed my pants. I was a huge Suburbs fan. Chan and I hooked up on a golf course one day and just kind of hit it off. Then [singer-songwriter] Kristin Mooney came back from Los Angeles for a gig in town. We sat in with her and it was like, 'Oh, this is great.' We started working together after that."

In addition to sharing crooning duties with Poling, Munson plays upright bass on the jazzy New Standards album, as he did on Mike Doughty's Dan Wilson-produced (see a pattern here?) Haughty Melodic, released in May. "I've been getting more calls for the standup than for electric bass," he says. "It's a little strange. I've had it for about 15 years, but it mostly just sat in a corner--once again--until Semisonic stopped being active. Then I really started digging into it."

Despite his new love, Munson remains faithful to the electric, which he plays on a forthcoming album with fellow Trip Shakespeare/E. Brown alum Matt Wilson, with whom Munson also plays in the Flops. "Who can say where else it might turn up? I don't think a Semisonic continuation is inconceivable by any means," he says. "If Dan came to me next week and said, 'I've got 15 tunes,' I'd do it in a heartbeat. We're in really close touch. Jake and I both played on his record. There's really nothing to prevent us from getting back together. We're too close and too old to be like, 'Shit didn't work out, fuck you.' It's fun stuff to work on, which is what it really comes down to."

Assuming his finger cooperates. But even given the worst, things could work out. "I can move it fine," Munson says. "It just doesn't have any feeling. I did play one sort of three-finger gig with it--the New Standards CD-release party at the Dakota. It might have been the funnest show I've ever played in my life."

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